Category Archives: How to paint peonies

Oil Painting Lesson for Peonies and Asian Vase

Here’s a close up of the leaves and table flowers. It’s not that noticeable in the photo but I’ve been enhancing some of the blooms by deepening color and scumbling lites in a a few places. Tips of the petals have more color in them and I’ve added this in a few places. Often things that are not at first noticeable to you, become more so as time goes by. These less obvious statements can be brought out in later passes.

There’s a bit of reflected pink on the side of the vase where the flowers rest against it. I’ve added that as well. Notice there are no shadows yet on the table top. Generally these are added even before I start a painting, but I opted to use a glazing method to put them in afterwards. I wanted to develop the leaves a bit more before I do that.

So here I’ve started to add some of the stems and more leaves. In order to differentiate the ones in front from the leaves in back, I’ve lighted some of the edges on the leaves. I’ll refine these even further in the last session.

Notice the cast shadows from the leaves on the table cloth.

I felt that the peony on the left side was a bit too lit up and it was stealing the show from the larger one which is the main focal point of the painting. Even though I loved the way that other peony looked, it’s never a good idea to sacrifice an entire painting for the purpose of preserving a single passage. So I mixed a glaze of the Quinacridone Pink with some green and started to knock it down a bit.
Now that the pant is dry on the other flowers, I’m free to add some modeling to some of the petals by adding more lights and darks. The lights are added with mixtures of titanium white which has high tinting strength and small amounts of Naples Yellow or the Quinacridone Pink – depending on what I’m after. If I add a white/yellow mixture, the petal will round outward. If I add a the pink, it will tend to retreat a bit. Not as much as if I cooled the mixture with green, but just enough to turn the petal away from me.

I’ve also done some more darkening on the apple on the left. The stems and leaves are easier to view here.

Oops. Camera is a bit tilted here. But I think you can get an idea. I’ve mixed some Ultramarine Blue with some umber to tone it down. A glaze mixture with the use of Maroger Medium was combined and then using a soft sable, I started to lay in the lines for the blue design on the vase. I’m careful here to maintain the structure of the vase which is not quite round, but slightly squared off. The design helps to describe the form.


The paint under the glaze is completely dry so that it’s safe to put the glaze on, and if I make a mistake, wipe it out with a brush that has been wet with thinner.
I took the time here to work some more on the petals of the flower resting on the table. I’ve darkened some of the leaves and created stronger cast shadows from them on the table cloth.

Here I’ve added more details. The design the top of the vase is done by making a mixture of shadow white with a touch of ultramarine blue. Remember this part of the design is in the shadow.

I’ve also refined the shape and thickness of the blue lines and darkened the shadow under the vase and some of the other objects on the table.

Viola! Finito la comedia. Or, in other words, done! Much nicer when you get to view the whole piece in one shot.

The final design is in. I’ve heightened the lights on the vase in a couple of places by scumbling in some lighter mixture here and there. The table top is a bit more lit up where the apples are. I’m also finally happy with the peony that is drooping off to the left. It no longer steals the show and tucks back nicely with some atmosphere around it. I’ve darkened the table cloth toward the bottom of the picture as well.

Well, the painting is done, signed and for the most part, both the client and myself are happy with it. Hope you like it too. Thanks for stopping by. Remember, in order to see the whole lesson in one easy read, check out the lesson on my website by clicking here.

“Full Bloom”
18″ x 24″, Oil on Canvas


How to Paint Peonies, A Commission, Final Session

It’s been a few busy days. My studio is much further along than the last time we spoke. :-) and I’ve attended my first atelier class with Tenaya Sims. A terrific day! But I’ll save that for another time. Let’s get started.

In the last session I stated that I wanted to revisit the background. I felt it was too busy and so the first thing I did upon opening this session was to oil out with Maroger and then repaint the background. I mixed a new mixture with Raw Umber, Cad Yellow and a touch of Cobalt Blue to cool the mixture. It looks a bit warm here but that’s the light. As my windows are now completely blocked off with plywood (they took them out to put them in the new construction), I didn’t have any cool natural light to balance the overheads. I think in later photos, it’s true tone will become evident. Anyway, it looks better. Don’t you think? All those swirls in the background were just too distracting. This is just the right amount of atmosphere and light.

I’ve added some twigs here for interest. Remember that straight lines are much more attractive than lines that are curvy. In this case, the straight lines form a nice contrast to the curves of the petals and help to create directional lines for the composition. These were done with a palette knife. A little trick I learned at the David Leffel workshop. Slide the edge of your palette knife through the pant and then carefully set the edge against the canvas and pull the knife outward in the desired direction. It does take a bit of practice, but it’s well worth the time investment.

How to Paint Peonies, Day Two

Well thanks for checking back in today. I actually painted this lesson over two days starting with the background yesterday and continuing with the flowers today. Here we go. If you’d like to read this lesson in a more consistent manner that flows from top to bottom without having to skip around blog style, click here.

The background was the first thing I started on with color. I generally choose an umber background for pink because the slight green tint sets off the pinks in the blossoms nicely. This mix was done with a combination of Burnt Umber and Raw Umber plus a bit of Cad Yellow Light and Naples Yellow. The lighter tones were done with a bit more Naples yellow. I was looking for a light feeling of tapestry here. As the painting develops I continue to work the background. I like to have it slightly wet as I work because that allows me to fade flowers into the background. Again – I apologize for the glare. Not much I can do about it under the circumstances. Each time I pause to take a picture, I have to turn lights on and turn others off. It’s a bit tricky and breaks my concentration so I try not to have to do too much in that arena. Also, what looks fine in the camera, often looks quite different once I download the picture.

I worked some darker umber and Ultramarine Blue into the background on the lower left hand side and into the shadows on the tapestry.

For the vase, I used my usual mix of black, Cadmium Yellow Light and white along with a touch of the background color. For the light struck area, I used Cremintz White with a touch of Ultramarine Blue. Some of the shadow color was added as well. This is only a preliminary under painting for the vase.

I vowed this time around that I would try to give more step-by-step on the flowers – so here goes. I used a shadow color which was mixed by combining Quinacridone Red and Cadmium Red Light plus a bit of Cremintz White. The Cremintz White is a very thick impasto white with low tinting strength. Good for low tints and where you don’t want to wash out the color. It’s also lovely for building impastos.
I brushed this color combo into the areas where the darker richer interiors of the Peony face away from the light. I used a bit of Cadmium Orange to place warmth into those shadows.

When I mix these colors, I try not to over mix them with a palette knife, but instead use my brush and whip them up a bit to where they are delicately blended – like making muffin batter. Too much mixing and the muffins go flat.

For the reflected lights – always a tough call – I used a bit of Quinacridone Pink which has more blue in it. This was mixed with a bit of background color that had been lightened with touches of white to gray it a bit. Shadows are always deeper near to the object which casts them. So I brushed a bit of Raw Umber mixed with Ultramarine Blue into the shadows closest to the Peonies. The vase is still very simple at this point. I’m only suggesting the shape at the bottom where the shadow curves a bit. Later, I’ll place some background color to deepen shadows and bring atmosphere forward into the painting. I’ve also deepened the shadows on the tapestry in the background.

Here’s the close up. You can see the brush work is kept light. When painting the inside of a flower, you have to figure that that part of the bloom is receding from you and paint it thinly – just as you would shadows.

Here I’ve started to put in the highlights on the lit side of the flower. The paint is quite thick. I’m using the same color that I used in the interior passages but lightened with Cremintz White. I’m using a 1/2″ DaVinci Filbert Bristle brush. Bristles are best for impasto work because they are just stiff enough to hold the paint.

For the initial strokes I used a 1/4 inch brush but decided that it looked too picky so I changed to a larger one and went to a technique that I’m comfortable with.

I didn’t have anyone to take a picture of me laying in the petals so I’ll have to describe the technique. After I’ve loaded the brush, I lay the bristle’s at a 30 degree angle to the canvas and starting at the center of the bloom I make the petal using one stroke by pulling the brush outward to circumference of the flower. I apply more pressure at the start of the stroke and lift off the brush at the back end of the stroke. This is a little tricky and takes some practice.
This stroke is more evident in the last two pictures.

Notice that the lights are bright, but there’s not enough punch or contrast between them and the shadows. This is because Cremintz is a low tint white. I’ll fix that in the end by using a bit of the same color mix but with Titanium White and some Maroger Medium.


I next moved on to the back ground flowers. These were mixed with a bit of Quinacridone Rose which has a bit of blue in it. You can see that color in the flowers facing away from you. Because they are in the background and less distinct, I softened the edges by brushing some of the background into them.

Notice the large bloom in the front and the smaller bloom just behind it. There’s not a huge difference in value here so I used a bit of edge control to push the one on the right back by making the edge of the flower in front a bit crisper. I also used little or no detail in the inside of the flower on the right. Less detail, less reason to spend time looking at it. Control your viewer’s eyes by the use of edges as well as values.

Notice that I’ve painted out the leaves. I decided I would rather design them as I go in the last sitting. Those are details that will be a bit demanding and may take more than one sitting to get right so I’d rather not have to paint background around them when I’m done. Instead I’ll use some Maroger to oil out the canvas and paint into it with the leaf colors when I’m ready. The background is an easy mix and can also be added if needed at a later point without having matching problems.

OK. I took another shot here to better evaluate the light. For this stage of the painting, I’m satisfied. I can see where I will want to darken some of the flowers on the left. This, however, is best left until they are dry and then I can just glaze into them. I rearranged the shapes of the larger flower and used the larger brush to do the petals. I have two more flowers to paint in the next session and then I want to re-evaluate the background and the overall shape of some of the blooms. Once I’ve tweaked those, I’ll start into the objects on the table.

For the background, I’m considering a glaze with a very thin coat of blue to cool it a bit. I can better evaluate it in the light of day however, and I’ll rethink it all in the morning. Good night and I’ll continue with you tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by.

How to Paint Peonies

“The Peony Commission”
Working Title

Peonies are such beautiful, lush flowers that it’s no mystery that they are loved by nearly all flower aficionados. I received this commission a couple of days ago and thought it might be fun to share the painting process with you.

The size of the painting is 18″ x 24″ at the request of the client. I sent her three compositional images and she decided on this vertical format. I’m glad because I’m a bit partial to this composition. Mainly this is because I love drama. Even in something as quiet as a still life, there can be great drama.

Notice how the composition is at eye level. You can basically divide the canvas into three areas. Below the table, the top of the table to the Golden Mein (about one third of the way down from the top, and the top one third where most of the flowers reside.
I chose an “S” composition for this floral as I often do in vertical compositions. Notice how the flowers form a backwards question mark or take an actual “S” direction. I chose green apples to offset the prinks in the flowers. I actually added some cut apples to the right after this picture was taken. They become apparent in the painting.

I first prepared the canvas a couple of days in advance by coating it with a thin layer of under painting white mixed with Liquin to help it’s drying time. I did this for two reasons: first, I prefer a smooth surface to one with texture and I like the way paint moves on a surface that has been primed with paint. The white under painting will cause the flowers to glow with an appearance of light emanating from within as the painting ages.

When the canvas was dry, I drew with charcoal the actual placement of the major elements and then sprayed the whole thing with a touch of hairspray. Nice to know that stuff is still useful for something.
Next I wiped on a thin layer of Burnt Umber mixed with Quinacridone Orange and then started to lift out the lights. I like this process of under painting because it allows me to make decisions as I go. If something doesn’t look right where I’ve placed it, I can easily move it by painting back into the toned canvas and wiping out the lights elsewhere. But my drawing was good here and I was pretty happy with the way the flowers were placed. I had made some changes to the flowers you see in the photograph until I was happy. Often, I won’t see things that need fixing until I start to get things on canvas. That’s why I can’t work from photos. Things looked flat in the photo I sent to the client but really started to fill out nicely when I started actually lifting out the lights on the canvas.

Here you can see the under painting developed further. I added a bloom or two to the left and filled out some other areas. I moved the flower on the table further to the right and the small one further to the left to bring out more of the “S” shape I was referring to. The large Peony in the top left of center is right about on the intersection of the Golden Mein, the sweet spot of the painting and where I want the viewer’s eyes to go. While it takes precedence now, it will be a challenge to keep it’s importance once color is added.

I pulled out lights where the light spills from the left across the vase. You might notice now that there is no design on the vase. That’s the last thing that gets added to the painting.
I’ve filled in some leaves and you can see now also where the apples and cut apples fall. I’ve brushed in some shadows as well to unify the piece.

OK. I’m about done here. The cloth is not quite finished and I’m thinking I’ll change quite a bit on there as the painting proceeds. I often move the light source to provide a few shadows and lit parts on the cloth in the front. I don’t want to do that until the majority of the painting is done as once the light moves, it’s difficult to get things back where they were. While a purist might say that the shadows will not be true to life, an “artist” knows that what works in a painting is not generally true to life in all cases.

I’ve lightened the background on the right. This will add more depth to the painting later. It won’t be bright, per se, but will be a softly shadowed mid tone to allow the flowers to fade into it. The left side will be darker.

All this, mind you, is subject to change. But for the most part, I’m happy with this first stage. Check back tomorrow or the next day to see the next step. Thanks for tuning in.

If the lesson is difficult to follow on the blog, I suggest you click here to follow it on my website where the type flows smoother. Just click on “Peony Commission” when you get there.

Painting Tips on Peonies in Cool Light

“Peonies and Lemons, cool light”
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Suffering from a major headache, I didn’t take a lot of pictures today while working. Just pushed through. But I wanted to talk a little bit about this painting because, despite the headache, I really enjoyed working on it today. I started it much the same as I always do with a wash of burnt umber. I knew I wanted a dark background (I’m a sucker for chiarascurro) so I started with my usual base of umber and then added some ultramarine blue to darken it on one side and some naples yellow and raw sienna on the right to lighten it a bit.

The lemons were executed with zinc yellow and bits of black and umber for the shadows. The peonies were simply done and I was amazed at how quickly they popped off my brush. These were done with Alazarin Crimsen, Manganese Violet and touches of cad red light mixed with, of course white. The centers had a bit of cad orange in them. To push the blooms back, I used a bit of the background and some green from the lemons to gray out the reds.

The vase wasn’t glazed but instead I just built it out of thick paint and used cobalt blue for the design. I nocked down the white with umber and a bit of naples yellow.

I’m paying a lot of attention to edge control these days and trying to make each brush stroke count. David Leffel says that a poor brush stroke deliberately made is far better than one that has been just splashed on without forethought. I have to agree with this because some of my best work is work that I have been deliberate and totally present for. It’s an act of consciousness and a bit of meditation. It takes tons of concentration, and I generally turn off all music in the studio in order to just be present.

I talked about the discipline of “showing up” in one of my posts and today was a good example of that. There are days when the paint just flows off the brush and all the relationships manage to come together. But if you don’t show up, it can’t happen. I had a miserable headache and the urge to just lie down with a cold compress nearly kept me from walking through the door. I awfully glad I did. This is a beauty of a painting. Painterly but detailed. I love the cool light and feel pretty good about the color relationships as well.

The area of color relationships is another topic altogether. Duane Keiser says, and who am I to argue with the guru, that mixing the right color is pretty much instinctual. It’s color relationships that give students the most trouble. I’m not sure if I completely agree with this. I have a couple of students that are really struggling with the issue of temperature. But most do get it pretty quickly. Relationships, though, that’s another story. The questions must always be asked when working from life, “is that color warmer or cooler, darker or lighter than the one next to it?” Also, it’s not enough to just question the immediate relationship but also how each color affects all the other ones in the painting. What looks fine on the palette often translates to “agh!” on the canvas. I have my students work always with a color wheel next to them.

Enough of these ramblings. I’ll be talking more about color relationships and how to better judge them in future posts.